Is dehorning of cattle an outdated practice?

Author: Alice Oven, Senior Editor, Taylor & Francis Publishing and MSc student at University of Winchester
Dehorning of cattle is standard practice in modern farming systems, conducted to protect leather and meat products from damage. However, there are major welfare implications associated with both dehorning cattle and disbudding calves. This blog looks at the key issues and considers how the practice might be discouraged.
Physiological, neuroendocrine and behavioural evidence indicates that dehorning or disbudding cattle compromises welfare, especially when conducted without pain management. To disbud a calf, a 600 degree iron is pressed against the head to burn through the nerves and blood vessels that would allow the horn bud to develop (Pond, 2012). Excessive heat can damage the underlying bone (Kihurani et al, 1989). Alternatively, caustic paste may be used to chemically burn off the horn buds, making the pain easier to manage (when the burning paste does not run into the calf’s eyes) (Vickers et al, 2005). Dehorning of adult cattle increases risks of sinusitis, bleeding and infection (Hoffsis, 1995). On some occasions, crude instruments may be used to physically remove (gouge out) horns or buds, or wire employed to saw off horns (AVMA, 2014). Use of a local anaesthetic does not completely alleviate the pain for the adult cow nor calf for any of these methods, during or after surgery (Stafford and Mellor, 2005). The commonly used anaesthetic lidocaine, for instance, is only effective for up to three hours after administration.
Cauterising iron in action. Image by Dr Clive Dalton.
A cattle pen with carefully designed curved corridors
Refinements such as using combinations of drugs or cauterising the wound to dull the pain offer a partial solution but do not completely negate the welfare cost. Is there then an effective strategy to discourage the practice altogether? Enhanced human-animal relationships (HAR) might reduce danger of injury to handlers from horned cattle. Talking calmly can lower fear in the animal and agitation in the handler, while animals worked in groups are less easily stressed and panicked than individuals. Situations that cause cattle to refuse to move (and consequently injure themselves and their handler) can be avoided with specially designed chutes, smaller pens, consistent level flooring, sensitive lighting, curved alleyways with solid walls and padded equipment (Chastain, 2017).
For economic reasons, farmers have been traditionally resistant to using naturally polled (hornless) breeds because these cattle, particularly in dairy farming, are perceived as less productive. Polled beef bulls already demonstrate behaviour, growth, carcass quality and reproductive performance equivalent to their horned counterparts. Raising public awareness of explicitly inhumane practices like disbudding might counter losses by encouraging consumers to pay more for milk from polled cows. This means challenging consumer perception that dairy cow welfare is more positive than that of meat animals, a belief that have made addressing welfare issues in the dairy industry “considerably more challenging and vexatious than doing so in the beef industry” (Rollin, 2017). More recently, documentaries such as the BBC’s ‘The Dark Side of Dairy’ are helping to change this.
Another possibility is introducing the polled gene into productive breeds like Friesian and Celtic cattle. Many polled cows will carry a second horned allele (heterozygous polled) which they may pass down to their calves; however, new testing can identify cattle carrying two polled genes (homozygous polled) and guarantee that they can breed with horned cattle and still produce polled offspring. This test is now available at the University of Queensland and can be done cost-effectively as a ‘bundle’ which can be customised for each breed. Most traditional Hereford breeders have introduced the polled gene to their herds in response to commercial preferences: in 2017 77.8 percent of calves were born polled compared with 69.7 percent in 2016, a positive indicator of change.
Rose, a polled Hereford cow. Image by Cliff, 2008
It may even be plausible to speed up this process using genetic engineering. Recombinetics are fast forwarding selective breeding to create hornless Friesian dairy cows. The gene editing company is crossbreeding hornless mutations of beef cattle breeds such as the Angus and “turning off” the gene that provides for horns (Bloch, 2018). They are also developing castration-free swine that don’t go through puberty and heat-tolerant cattle for the Tropics. In the past, public fear and FDA regulations have prevented such animals from entering the food market: Annie, the first genetically modified cow was engineered in 2000 to be resistant to mastitis (a staph infection costing dairy farmers $1.7 billion a year) but public fears and government regulations prevented her from entering the food market (Bloch, 2018). It’s plausible that almost 20 years on the climate is changing, regulatory oversight potentially moving to the USDA1 and gene editing tools like CRISPR and TALEN removing the nightmarish connotations of ‘combining’ animals using transgenesis techniques of old. In this case, the immediate creation of hornless cattle might become viable.
To conclude, painful dehorning and disbudding of cattle is becoming an increasingly unnecessary practice, and can be avoided using more humane handling techniques and careful genetic selection for polled cows. In this instance, GE is actually offering a further opportunity to enhance animal welfare, but whether the public will accept this perceivably ‘unnatural’ intervention is yet to be seen.


AVMA (2014). Welfare Implications of Dehorning and Disbudding Cattle: Literature Review. Available at: [Accessed 18 March 2019].

Bengtsson B., Menzel A., Holtenius P., et al. (1996). Cryosurgical dehorning of calves: a preliminary study.  Veterinary Record, 138:234-237.

Bloch, S. (2018). Hornless Holsteins and Enviropigs: the genetically engineered animals we never knew. New Food Economy. Available at [Accessed 12 Oct. 2018].

Chastain, C.B. (2017). Animal Handling and Physical Restraint. Boca Raton, Fl.: CRC Press, 296.

Hoffsis G. (1995). Surgical (cosmetic) dehorning in cattle. Veterinary Clinics: Food Animal Practice, 11:159-169.

Kihurani D., Mbiuki S., Ngatia T. (1989). Healing of dehorning wounds. British Veterinary Journal, 145:580-585.

McDonald, A. (2018). Weekly genetics review: the elusive polled gene not so elusive. Beef Central. 16 Oct. Available at [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

Pond, W., Bazer, F. & Rollin, B. (2012). Animal Welfare in Animal Agriculture: Husbandry, Stewardship, and Sustainability in Animal Production, Second Edition, Boca Raton, Fl: CRC Press.

Rollin, B. (2017). Guest commentary: animal welfare in the dairy industry. AGWEB. Farm Journal. 04 Nov. Available at [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

Rollin, B. (1995). The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stafford K., Mellor D. (2005). Dehorning and disbudding stress and its alleviation in calves. Veterinary Journal, 169:337-349.

Vickers K., Niel L., Kiehlbauch L., et al. (2005). Calf response to caustic paste and hot-iron dehorning using sedation with and without local anesthetic. Journal of Dairy Science, 88:1545-1459.

1 In a statement released in February 2018, the National Pork Producers Council called for moving regulatory oversight of gene edited animals from FDA to a department of USDA that already regulates gene editing in plants.

About the author

Alice Oven is Senior Editor at Taylor & Francis Publishing and an MSc student at University of Winchester, commissioning Life Science and Veterinary books by day and studying for a degree in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law by night. Based in London, her blog hosts a range of articles and essays on animal rights and welfare, including pieces for Utility Farm, A-LAW, and IFAW.

You can follow Alice on Twitter at @Alice_Oven and on Instagram at @moonlolly.